What is Stress?

Have you noticed that everyone talks about stress? It is not fashionable talk. People are seriously stressed. Stress is now recognized as a major contributor to chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease, depressive conditions, arthritis, cancer, chronic lung problems and muscular problems, lower back pain, etc. Stress in itself is not the cause of disease, but rather a major contributing factor.

What is Stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adjustment or response. It leads to bodily and mental tension. Here is the definition by Hans Selye, a scientist and research fellow in the Department of Biochemistry at McGill University in the 1930s. ‘Stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it’.

Reactions to Stress

Hans Selye found that the human body develops non-specific reactions whenever it is stressed, i.e. whenever its integrity is challenged. It can have wide ranging effects on emotions, mood and behavior. Equally important but often not appreciated, are effects on various body systems, organs and tissues. The challenge or the stressor can be: bacteria, environmental poison, excessive heat or cold, overwork, intense emotion, physical injury, shock, a threat or anticipated loss.

All of these stressors trigger stress. Selye discovered that stress occurs in three well-defined stages: alarm, resistance (or adaptation) and exhaustion.

The first stage is Alarm. This is when the body calls its defensive forces to arms. During this stage the body’s immune system is challenged, overall resistance is lowered, the sympathetic nervous system fires, brainwaves change, muscles prepare for action, circulation to the muscles increases and the adrenals secrete hormones. All of this is a kind of biological preparation to ‘fight or flee’.

The second stage is Adaptation or Resistance. This follows close behind alarm. Many of the body’s systems are stimulated into increased activity in order to meet the challenge presented and to protect the body from harm. Resistance is raised and the symptoms of alarm disappear. Adaptation can last for a long or short time depending on individual inner ability or the intensity of the stressor. But it cannot go on forever. A body can withstand stress only for so long then adaptation energy is used up. If the stressor remains, sooner or later exhaustion sets in.

The third stage is Exhaustion. The body’s adaptive qualities get exhausted and its weakest systems start to break down. Chronic fatigue and illness are the hallmarks of the exhaustion stage. If they continue then eventually the body dies.


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